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Is Abu Dhabi the new Dubai?
Niki May Young reports

In the throes of a financial crisis, industry events have been forced to reassess at every level. From attendance figures to exhibitor lists, to attendee tête-à-tête’s in the corridor, the business and impact of an event alters with the times. At MIPIM last month we saw a general sobering of conversation and a much more visible back-to-business approach to the typically merry event. And this month Cityscape Abu Dhabi poses the questions: Will things ever be the same again?; Where do global investors invest in these troubled times? and; Is it the end of the American Dream for US real estate, or just the beginning? Capturing the scene from this latest Cityscape which concludes tomorrow, WAN caught up with several industry leaders attending to ask why Abu Dhabi, and what lessons are there for architects?

“In the current market I think attendance at events like Cityscape and MIPIM is very useful as it is important to keep in view and maintain existing relationships and make new ones,” said Duncan Bainbridge, Communications Manager for Australian firm HASSELL. “I think that these events are as relevant to architects as they are to the property industry.”

With 'round tables', business breakfasts, golf tournaments and cocktail receptions, the event offers many opportunities for the architect to pitch and discuss their projects to those with the capital and foresight to push through the crisis, or if not, then simply to discuss issues affecting the industry. With 250


exhibitors and 101 speakers, Abu Dhabi's event seems prosperous. Cityscape as an entity, however, has not been unscathed by the global financial climate. Cityscape China, due for a three day event in May, had just 60 exhibitors last year and has been forced to merge with Cityscape Asia. .

Unlike other events, Cityscape focuses on real estate investment and finance. Abu Dhabi's event features opportunities within the Middle East and internationally but architects attending see the potential from within the confines of the city itself.

“At the moment, we know that there is tremendous investment in infrastructure development in Abu Dhabi,” said 3XN’s Lise Roland Johansen. “The 2030 plan, along with sustainable goals have required Abu Dhabi's government to seek out best practices from around the world. Our strengths being in educational, cultural and corporate buildings positions us quite well as we meet with leading authorities in these sectors over the next few days.”

Aedas CEO, David Roberts, hinted that Abu Dhabi now has more potential than Dubai for real estate. Relating Cityscape to the seriousness of talks at MIPIM he said: “In terms of Abu Dhabi, whether there is a lot of real discussion, Abu Dhabi is looking more at the present going forwards than Dubai. I think the focus will be getting more serious because the intent is to learn from other places including Dubai.”

Dubai has been hard hit during the financial crisis. Just yesterday Bloomberg reported that stocks in Dubai dropped the most for three months and quoted a report by Colliers CRE Plc which states that 'house prices have fallen as much as 42 percent in the past six months and are likely to drop further as new homes are completed amid waning demand'. The effects are felt with banks cutting back on mortgage payouts and investors bailing with low confidence. Event the most significant projects in Dubai are flailing with Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths announcing that the new $33 billion airport is not only facing delays but is to lose one of its six planned runways. The CEO is currently unable to say when the airport will be able to function.

In contrast, Roberts explains that


investment from within Abu Dhabi ensures its importance to architects: "We have a commitment to the Abu Dhabi market long term and a number of projects in the area, the good news is that a number of those projects have been acquired. Both in 2008 and the start of 2009. Abu Dhabi is a very very key market. It also gives us a showcase in the Middle East and I think a lot of other cities are looking to Abu Dhabi for inspiration."

While it's fallacy to suggest that Abu Dhabi has not been hit by the turbulence of markets over the past months, at present it appears to represent a safer bet for investors, real estate and architects alike. Where Dubai was seen as the 'playground for architects', Abu Dhabi is now regarded as a far more adult and sustainable plateau from which to plant architectural seeds and this is evidenced by $multi billion developments such as Saadiyat Island, within which architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry have projects, reportedly running to schedule. As such Cityscape Abu Dhabi could prove the most influential of all 9 worldwide events.

"Cityscape is very much about the potential for, and the realization of - partnerships. Co-operation amongst various players is essential in terms of putting together winning teams for great projects. Architects give vision - and in contexts where rapid development is occurring, the value added by good architecture is highly recognized," said Johansen.

"We notice a general trend to higher quality development during recessions. In good times, poorer quality is tolerated - and in difficult times, only the best will stand a chance to be noticed. Cityscape this year is going to be very defining."



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